Missa – Preparation
Yesterday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and I attended the Mass at noon. The church was dark, lit only by the light coming through windows; several other people had already arrived while more were coming in. Shuffling feet and mumbled voices, as people try to quietly find a seat broke the silence only slightly. I am lucky to have found a church that values piety, it was one of the first things I noticed about the one I attend, and sadly it seems to be a hard thing to find these days, even in the Catholic church.
The Mass is the very center of catholic worship, it is liturgy, it is art, it is prayer and it is worship, but it’s primary function is that of communion. Communion among fellow christians, communion with the saints of the church as the mystical body of Christ and all revolving around the Eucharist where the deepest communion exists, the real presence of Christ, the Body and Blood of the Lord. This is what going to mass is about, and this is what we prepare for before the mass even starts.
Preparation for mass takes place long before the actually liturgy begins. There are preparations for the priest and parishioner alike, which to some may be surprising. Many times I have heard criticism concerning the priesthood and catholics, primarily that the priest is somehow the “show” and the parishioner is merely the “audience” or that the priest is a mediator standing between the catholic and God. In reality the parishioner has just as important a part to play at the mass and in church life as the priest, even if our function seem so different.
The priest prepares for the Sacred Liturgy in several ways. Making sure that all the necessary articles are in place and ready such as candles, the Chalice and Paten, and the missal. He will also prepare by saying prayers while he dresses in the proper vestments for the mass. The word vestment is really just latin for clothes. The priest has several different vestments which all have different meaning and prayers to accompany. Color is also important as the season or ceremony may require a certain color of garment. For instance during Advent and Lent the season color is purple. The priests garments with contain this color and other articles in the church will as well.
For the layman, our preparation for mass begins with reconciliation. reconciliation is commonly called “Confession”. It is often ridiculed and criticized as some remnant of authoritarianism from the dark ages, but in fact is one of the churches “best kept secrets”, comparable to the modern counsellor, but for free. As catholics we hold a very intense belief about the Eucharist and because of this belief we have certain protocol before partaking. In preparing for the Mass we are really preparing to receive the Eucharist and one of the ways we prepare for this is through the forgiveness of sins. If a catholic is in a state of mortal sin, they must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before they can receive the Eucharist. Keep in mind that to a catholic, the eucharist isn’t mere bread and wine, it is not crackers and grape juice. It is the real presence of Jesus Christ, and we treat it in the utmost reverence. A catholic who has not gone to confession can still attend Mass, and as long as they are not in a state of mortal sin can still partake of the Eucharist. (Note: A mortal sin is defined as a sin of grave nature, committed with full knowledge and deliberate.)
Preparation for Mass continues by fasting. In older times it was common to fast from the night before but today the church requires that one fast for at least one hour before receiving the Eucharist. This probably has more to do with the modern world and the fact that mass schedules range from the morning to the evening. Be that as it may, there is no reason why a person could not prepare by fasting longer than an hour.
As we arrive at the church building, we enter and bless ourselves Making the sign of the Cross with Holy Water. This reminds us of our Baptism and Baptismal Vows. Holy Water is considered a sacramental, which means that it is a sacred sign that resembles a sacrament. It is tied to the remission of what catholics call Venial Sins, or forgivable sins. These are the minor and sometimes not so minor sins which we commit that are not necessarily intended, planned or chosen. Like our baptism, holy water reminds and acts as a physical example of Gods grace, and like the washing of the disciples feet reminds us to “keep our shoes clean”.
Next we find a seat and as we prepare to sit we Genuflect. This is to show our respect and acknowledgement for the Eucharist which is housed in the Tabernacle on the altar. A catholic genuflects by kneeling down on the right knee. In older days the use of a genuflect was also used of Emperors and kings as well as clergy but would differ by dropping to the left knee. Other forms of such adoration are a profound bow in the direction of the altar.
At last I arrive at my seat, and kneel down to pray. Often I will recite an act of contrition, which is a prayer said during confession, again to prepare myself for the Mass and in the stillness reflect on the art in the church. The Crucifix, pictures of saints, the candles; all bringing to mind the gospel, tradition and completeness of faith.
I am still, I am at peace, I am ready to experience and participate in the ancient christian celebration of the Sacred Liturgy which we call the Mass.